Thursday, 2 September 2010

John Muir: Stone Sermons

Travel writer Jan Morris once observed that "there can be few places of comparable grandeur so ghastly to visit as the Yosemite Valley on a holiday." She (then James) was writing in 1956 but on a recent visit to the Valley I did begin to wonder what I was doing there. There were queues for everything - from finding a parking space, getting a pizza, viewing waterfalls, showers, to the pleasure of renting a dusty patch of ground to put up my tent.

Of course nothing detracts from the supreme beauty of the place and once established in your campsite/lodge/hotel you can begin to relax and really appreciate the place. In fact, as I soon discovered, step off the main roads and it surprising how relaxed things begin to feel, while break away from the established trails and you'll soon be on your own. And then of course there is always the option heading up one of the the rock faces. Gain a bit of height, then look out over the tall, ancient trees, framed by the vast granite walls, and you can imagine what it was like when people first started exploring this wilderness in the 19th century (obviously Native Americans had been living in Yosemite for centuries.)

The most famous of these new visitors was John Muir, who, as every self-respecting environmentalist knows, was the Scottish-born American naturalist who was largely responsible for the establishment of Yosemite as a National Park as well the preservation of other wilderness ares. He has an almost god-like status in the park with his picture everywhere. In fact the great bearded one spent a relatively small amount of time in the park, mainly between the years 1868 and 1874. During this period he signed up as a shepherd to take a flock of 2,000 sheep to Tuolumne Meadows in the High Sierra, an adventure he recounted in one of his most exciting books, My First Summer in the Sierra, (published much later on in his life.)

Muir may have been looking after sheep but he explored as much of the landscape as possible. His diary shows that he was obsessed with Cathedral Peak, a spectacular 10,911-foot weathered granite horn above Tuolumne Meadows. The following entry appeared on August 9 1869:

"From every point of view it shows marked individuality. It is a majestic temple of one stone, hewn from the living rock, and adorned with spires and pinnacles in regular cathedral style ...(he hoped to climb to it) to say my prayers and hear the stone sermons."

Later that year he finally made an unroped ascent of the peak armed with nothing but a notebook tied to his belt and a few lumps of hard break in his coat pockets. One has to marvel at Muir's daring and adventurous spirit and some say this excursion kicked off Yosemite's climbing era. Equipped with rather more gear, a friend and I did a route on the mountain, last month. We had the rock to ourselves (bar a bare-chested hotshot who soloed past muttering something about English beer) and if I didn't quite hear Muir's 'stone sermons' amidst the spires, the view from the top of the final pinnacle is stupendous enough to bring out feelings about a higher being in even the most hardened atheist.

Or, as Peter Croft, author of The Good, The Great and The Awesome, puts it:

"The view from the top is pretty as punch and less than two hours away is the Meadows Store. Soon you'll be accosting strangers in the parking lot. "Excuse me, sir", you'll say, popsickle in one hand as you jerk the thumb of the other hand over your shoulder , "in case you're interested, I just climbed that MOUNTAIN!"

To take the ecclesiastical theme one step further, Climbing Great Buildings, a new BBC series, includes climbs up great structures such as World Heritage site, Durham Cathedral.

(Cathedral Peak pictures: Tim Wilkinson)

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